General McChrystal’s Leadership Lessons for Yale Students

Steve Walt's attack on our professor is way off base.

Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Robin Hood Foundation
Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Robin Hood Foundation

In recent days, Colonel Gian Gentile at The Atlantic and Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy have written items alleging that retired U.S. general Stanley McChrystal, who currently teaches at Yale University, is limiting academic freedom through a "non-disclosure" policy within his classroom. Colonel Gentile and Professor Walt further insinuate that this policy was created as an unseemly inducement to bring General McChrystal to Yale. These accusations are both irresponsible and inaccurate.

The authors of this rebuttal are all Yale students who took General McChrystal’s course, "Leadership in Operation," last spring. We would like to begin by setting the facts straight. General McChrystal’s students do not sign a non-disclosure form. Nor is it the case, as the New York Times recently reported, that the course is "off the record." Rather, the course follows the usual, voluntary conventions of non-attribution that allow Yale’s frequent guest speakers to speak candidly to an academic audience. Colonel Gentile and Professor Walt are simply wrong to assert that any special arrangement was made for General McChrystal. Non-attribution is the standard practice when sensitive topics are going to be discussed by responsible officials.

We also take issue with Colonel Gentile and Professor Walt’s baseless assertions that General McChrystal’s teaching suffers from a lack of accountability and open discussion. In fact, the course is wholly devoted to open debate among a group with diverse experiences and views. As the Times reported, General McChrystal "insists that the students call him Stan" and "prods quiet students into talking." The class takes on a discussion format by design, and General McChrystal successfully facilitates spirited debate by encouraging dissent.

Like the fictional non-disclosure form, the notion that General McChrystal uses class time to promote his views on counterinsurgency doctrine is wholly imaginary. In fact, the course is not about Iraq, Afghanistan, national security, or even about policy. The class is about leadership. To that end, we used case studies taken from settings ranging from education and business to the histories of apartheid and the American Civil War. General McChrystal’s experiences enter the discussion only sporadically, to tee up much broader questions about effective leadership.

A further factual error is Colonel Gentile’s assertion that "students have little personal knowledge of the true nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan." This reflects an ignorance of the background and experience of the students in the class that borders on offensive. In fact, the course this past spring contained four veterans of these wars and a photojournalist who has embedded with American troops in Afghanistan on multiple occasions.

General McChrystal’s class brought together a diverse group of graduate, undergraduate, and professional students to discuss under-studied issues of character and leadership. The overall message is that a leader’s character — qualities like integrity, loyalty, empathy, and humility — matter. General McChrystal illustrates these principles through robust intellectual discussion and by the examples of numerous guest speakers who shared their own experiences with us. Consistent with academic custom, non-attribution ensures that these perspectives are made available in an environment sheltered from the forms of outside scrutiny that too often militate against candor.

Erin Biel

Colonel Thomas Boccardi

Charles Faint

Deborah Gim

Nathan Goralnik

Erik Heinonen

Patrick Hook

Allison Hugi

Adeel Ishtiaq

Helen Jack

Koichiro Kawaguchi

Andrew Macklis

Jason Mangone

Zorka Milin

Meredith Potter

Joshua Ray

Matan Shamir

Adriana Teran

Suchitra Vijayan

April Williamson

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